Marcus Annaeus Lucanus was born in Corduba (Cordova), Hispania into the very prominent Annaei family, which included his uncle, Seneca the Younger, and grandfather, Seneca the Elder. His birth was recorded as being Nov. 3, 39 CE. He was said to have studied rhetoric at Athens, but given the prominence of Seneca the Younger in the imperial court (he was tutor to the emperor Nero), he likely received an education from him as well.
Sometime after coming to Rome, he studied under the Stoic philosopher Annaeus Cornutus, a relative of his and Seneca’s. There he also met Persius, with whom he held a lifelong friendship.
In the late 50s, he befriended the emperor Nero, and was successful as a poet during his reign, winning for his poetry, the Orpheus and the Laudes Neronis (lit. “Praises of Nero”), at the Neronia, a festival held in the emperor’s honor in 60 CE.
Lucan moved up the latter of offices, becoming quaestor—years before legally allowed—and augur before he was 21. However, Lucan’s magnum opus, the Bellum Civile (“Civil War,” also called Pharsalia), which reserved sharp criticism for the emperor’s ancestor Julius Caesar, angered Nero, and the two had a falling out (Tac. Annals 15.49). Suetonius adds that Lucan wrote insulting poetry towards the emperor.
In 65 CE, a conspiracy led by C. Calpurnius Piso (called the Pisonian Conspiracy after him) led to convictions and forced suicides of many prominent citizens in Rome. Lucan was implicated, and committed suicide on April 30 that year.
Lucan’s only extant work is an epic poem on the Roman Civil War (49–45) simply called the Bellum Civile, or sometimes Pharsalia due to the prominence of the Battle of Pharsalus in both the poem as well as in securing Julius Caesar’s rule over any Roman rivals.
An outline of the poem is below:
1. Historical background; Caesar crosses the Rubicon.
2. Bitter at yet another civil war (the one between Marius and Sulla was still felt), Brutus and Cato debate whether it is better to try to remain neutral or join Pompey’s forces. They end up doing the latter in hopes of influencing Pompey, who flees to Greece as Caesar’s legions draw near.
3. Pompey flees Rome; Caesar ransacks the city and then heads to Massilia where he cuts down a sacred forest and besieges the city. A very gruesome naval battle takes place at the end.
4. Caesar is victorious in Spain. King Juba of Numidia (in north Africa) defeats Curio, one of Caesar’s closest allies; Lucan here includes a lengthy digression on Hercules defeating the giant Antaeus, a native of Libya.
5. Appius receives a (as usual) misleading prophecy from the Delphic oracle. Caesar is caught in a storm, and then reaches Greece to face Pompey’s troops, while Pompey’s wife Cornelia heads to Lesbos.
6. A small victory for Pompey, and Caesar retreats into Thessaly; Sextus Pompeius, Pompey’s son, consults the necromantic witch, Erichtho, who reanimates the corpse of a soldier to foretell doom for both Pompey and Caesar.
7. After hesitating, Pompey attacks, but is defeated by Caesar’s troops at Pharsalus. Lucan highlights Caesar’s slaughter and brutality by depicting him having breakfast on the field of unburied soldiers.
8. Pompey flees to Egypt to enlist the aid of the Pharaoh, Ptolemy XIII, who, fearful of Caesar’s might, instead has Pompey killed. Pompey is described as dying with Stoic calm.
9. Cato treks across Africa to Caesar crosses to get King Juba to join forces. Caesar crosses into Troy and, upon learning of Pompey’s death, “feigns grief.”
10. Alexandrian officials make attempts on Caesar’s life.
Because of Lucan’s reliance on Vergil’s Aeneid as a model (and anti-model) and his untimely death from the Pisonian conspiracy, scholars tend to view the work as potentially unfinished. Both Vergil’s Aeneid and the Bellum Civile treat Africa in book IV and have an “underworld” scene in book VII.
Since the Aeneid has twelve books, many suppose that the Bellum Civile originally was planned to have twelve books, too. Notably absent from the treatment of the Civil War are the war against Pharnaces and the death of Cato found in the Caesarian corpus.
Many authors, such as Jamie Masters mentioned below, have argued against this interpretation by attacking the strength of the evidence. At best, it is possible Lucan had enough time to get the poem to where he wanted it to be before being forced to commit suicide.
Though the poem covered historical events, Lucan did not mean to convey a historically accurate poem. First, it must be remembered that Caesar’s death was over 90 years prior the composition of the poem’s first book. Second, it was more important for Lucan to convey Stoic principles. which did not easily line up with a the Julio-Claudian will, as well as deliberate invert the pro-Caesar, pro-Augustan point-of-view he found in the Aeneid.
An anonymous poem going by the title Laus Pisonis (Eng. Praise of Piso) is sometimes attributed to Lucan in his youth. The poem’s author describes himself as almost twenty, which would fit Lucan’s profile as a young poet prodigy. Others include the Genethliacon, Iliacon, Catachtonion, De Incendio Urbis, Saturnalia, Silvae, and epigrams, though scant few lines of these survive.
- Frederick M. Ahl 1976. Lucan: An Introduction. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- W. R. Johnson 1987. Momentary Monsters: Lucan and His Heroes. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
- Jamie Masters 1992. Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Matthew Leigh 1997. Lucan: Spectacle and Engagement. Oxford: Clarendon Press.